There’s good reason for Sunshine Laws

The headline said it all: “Mayor apologizes for closed meeting.”

At Monday night’s Sister Cities’ Commission Meeting, New Ulm Mayor Bob Beussman did the only responsible thing he could: accept full responsibility for illegally closing the commission’s previous meeting in order to discuss three recent Hans Joohs interns and their experience in Ulm, Germany.

Mayor Beussman and a member of the commission had been contacted by their counterparts in Germany with concerns about the conduct of recent interns. In an effort to protect these interns and their the families from any undue embarrassment, Beussman unilaterally decided to close the meeting.

While his intentions may have been noble, his actions were illegal.

First, there are specific provisions in the Minnesota Open Meeting law for when a government body can close a meeting. Embarrassing circumstances are not among them.

Secondly, when a meeting is closed to discuss an individual’s performance (typically a government employee, not an intern) the identity of the person is required by law to be revealed before the meeting. Again, this did not happen.

And finally, Minnesota law requires all closed meetings to be tape recorded. In this instance, the recording was stopped.

Any one of these three infractions not only compromises the integrity of the mayor and the commission, but exposes them to unneeded legal liability.

More importantly though, it demonstrates a lack of accountability to not only the people who empower the mayor and the commission, but the ones who pay the bills as well.

Taxpayers have an inherent right to transparent government. Government of the people, by the people and for the people is more than just a catchy phrase from a famous speech dedicating a Civil War battlefield. It is the essence behind states’ Sunshine Laws, which grant citizens access to the inner workings of the government that is supposed to be working for them.

This week is nationally dedicated to the Sunshine Law and recognizing its importance in our democratic society. Journalists and government officials frequently battle over access to records with one wanting more and the other wanting to give less. However, what’s important to remember is those battles aren’t about newspapers, radio or television station reporters and editors. It’s about what records the entire public has access to records they have already paid for through taxes.

Mayor Beussman’s actions, while serious in nature, are fairly insignificant in the grand scheme. In fact, his closing of the meeting became a bigger story than the actual infractions the interns are accused of committing.

We at The Journal believe in the mayor’s sincerity regarding his apology and assurance something like this won’t happen in the future. We also believe actions speak louder than words, but in this instance, Mayor Beussman has earned the benefit of the doubt.

However, the incident itself reminds us why the Sunshine Law is there in the first place: to prevent arbitrary and subjective closing of meetings and hiding information the public has every right to know.